New bill in Oregon addresses housing affordability–by limiting local control

Oregon’s legislature is considering a fascinating, and controversial, bill to remove certain local controls over development in favor of new, faster development and higher density. The Atlantic’s “City Lab” reports:

H.B. 2007 would preempt residential downzoning in cities, meaning a neighborhood couldn’t seek lower density than its current status. It would also preempt cities or counties from banning accessory dwelling units or duplexes in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.

That’s a laundry list of obstacles that developers nationwide face in building new homes in supply-strapped cities. H.B. 2007 would take the question out of the hands of local government, where lawmakers are often shackled by the wishes of NIMBY homeowners who don’t want to see more housing (and more people) in their communities. Essentially, by stripping cities of authority, the state is protecting its cities from their own neighborhoods.

I am normally an advocate for increasing local control, not decreasing it—especially in Michigan where it often seems the best interests of cities like Detroit are not exactly the driving force behind our legislature’s decision-making. But I find this approach interesting because it is a response to decreasing housing affordability, which has reached crisis levels in Portland. Poor people simply can’t afford to live there without spending a large portion of their income on housing. HB 2007 “fast-tracks” a development’s permitting process if it includes affordable housing. And by ensuring that multi-family units can’t be easily prohibited from single-family neighborhoods, the bill fosters increasing density and helps support affordability.

The Strategic Importance of Cities

The bill also acknowledges that our cities play an important strategic role in the economic development of the state and that growing major cities ability to attract and retain talent is critical to the state’s goals. Our report on how to make Michigan a high-prosperity state once again shows that ensuring our cities are places where talent wants to live and work is essential.

A lot of what Michigan needs to do to improve our cities is encourage “placemaking,” the infusion of character and activation into public spaces that is usually the result of increasing density and walkability. A risk of this bill is to historic preservation–an ethos and set of tools that are essential to providing that sense of authentic character in a city. Advocates in Portland seem split on the extent of danger HB 2007 enables, but there is reason to be cautious.

Improving Economic Integration

A serious benefit is the potential for greater economic integration, by decreasing the local power that that those in affluent neighborhoods have to curtail new affordable housing in their neighborhood. Integrating neighborhoods is one of the key levers identified in our recent report on how to improve outcomes for Michigan’s kids. And affluent NIMBY’ers fighting new housing density is a problem that exists in certain Michigan cities already (think Ann Arbor) and could start to exist in certain neighborhoods of Detroit, if not the city as whole.

I’m not sure Oregon’s approach would be the right policy solution for Michigan. But it’s an interesting experiment, and I’ll certainly be watching for the results—if it passes.

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